Finding a way to connect brains to computers is a long-sought goal of scientists. Of some of the advantages promised by this partnership, we can now add improved memory.
As reported in New Scientist, researchers from the University of Southern California have found that by using their implant, they could improve participants' memory performance by up to 30 percent. The results, presented at the Society of Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC last weekend, are from the first human trial of such a device.
The team implanted the “memory prosthesis” in 20 volunteers. These people were already receiving electrodes in their brain to treat their epilepsy, so adding the extra system did not require an additional procedure. The tests were done in two parts: First the team collected brain activity data on the subjects as they learned. Then, they had the implant stimulate the same areas of the brain that lit up during the original memory test. The test was a simple short-term memory boosting exercise.
“We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function,” Dong Song of the University of Southern California, who presented the findings, told New Scientist. “This has never been done before.”
The implant is there to strengthen the normal pathways the brain uses to create a memory. Whenever we receive a stimulus from the outside world, a series of complex electrical signals travel through several regions of the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. As it passes through this region, the signal is changed to something different and can be sent off to the long-term memory repository.
The implant is simply mimicking what the hippocampus naturally does. In doing so, it’s boosting the memory capabilities of the individuals. This doesn’t mean we understand what’s being encoded. Before the human trial started, the researchers described the process as accurately translating Spanish to French without speaking either language.
This device could have applications for people who suffer from long-term-memory loss, such as patients living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is still very early days, but it is interesting that such a technology is being developed in the first place.
[H/T: New Scientist]